tagRomanceLove Among the Elk

Love Among the Elk


"Damn it, Les, you know how I feel about reporters. After the last time I said I'd never take one again!"

My boss looked at me wearily over the piles of papers, maps, and samples of antler on his well worn GSA desk.

"I also know that the budget axes are being sharpened in DC. Saving elk has to compete with everyone else's pet program for funding. A dramatic photo feature in a national magazine will go a long way toward keeping your program going next year."

Les knew he had me there. He pulled a scrap of paper from one of the piles- don't know how he does it, but he can find anything on that desk effortlessly- and held it out.

"Here's the number. I spoke to her a little on the phone and she seems like a decent enough gal. Go call her and make plans to take her on the roundup next week."

No matter how many sexual harassment seminars the Civil Service sent him to in his 30 years with Fish & Wildlife, Les could never break the Westerner's habit of referring to any female under the age of 70 as a "gal". I don't think he cared, and since he was a perfect gentleman to every woman he encountered in his work the PC Police gave up making an issue of it.

"Les, come on..."

When you reach the limit with Les you know it for sure. His eyes turned to ice.

"I ain't asking, son. Go make the call."

The he smiled a little.

"Hell, you might be lucky. Like I said, she sounds like a decent gal, and she may even be pretty. No way to tell on the phone. Lord knows there's not many cute single gals around here."

"Yeah, not since you grabbed up the last one!"

"Hell, son, that was twenty-seven years ago come next June. Which reminds me, Sharon said to tell you to come over to supper Sunday. She thinks you're looking too thin again from eating your own cooking."

Sharon may have been a bit plump and answered to "mom" when I jokingly called her that, but there was no question she had been a beauty in her day. Still was, as far as Les was concerned.

"Tell her I have all the buttons on that microwave figured out."

"That's what she's afraid of. Be there about four."

He knew me well enough. A choice between Sharon's home cooking and microwaving whatever I had stocked up on the last monthly trip to the Costco seventy-five miles away was no choice at all.

The number Les gave me started with "212". Great, a city girl from New York. This was looking like a disaster already. I got passed through several operators before I got to the right desk.

"Miss Erskine?"

The voice, a musical contralto, was decidedly cool.

"This is MS Erskine. Who's this?"

Maybe I exaggerated my Western drawl just a little.

"My name's Jim MacNeil, ma'am. I was told you wanted to come report on the elk roundup we're planning here in Oregon next week."

She warmed up just a little.

"Oh, right, I was expecting your call. I mainly want to take a lot of pictures of the process, and interview you and the other wildlife biologists about why you do this. I'm hoping the magazine will turn it into a feature that will grab the armchair adventure crowd."

"Well, that sounds just fine. I want you to understand what you're getting into, though. We spend long days way out in the mountains wrangling scared wild animals that can weigh up to a thousand pounds. It can get dangerous in a hurry, and I don't have a catering staff for reporters."

"Don't worry about me, Mr. MacNeil. Just let me know when and where to be there."

So I had pissed her off. Who cares, I don't like reporters anyway. We arranged for her to meet us at the parking lot where the crew was gathering to head up into the hills and hung up.

My crew wasn't any happier about her than I was.

"Another one? Christ, remember that bimbo they sent out the last time? Who the hell goes out in the mountains in a miniskirt and high heels?"

"I didn't mind that, since she did have nice legs, but I didn't appreciate her attitude. I haven't seen that much whine since the Yamhill Harvest Festival!"

We all groaned, and Chuck tried to give Ben a knuckle rub. The worse the pun the better Ben liked it. I stepped in.

"All right, guys, knock off the grabassing. This could make or break our funding for next year, so give this gal a chance. I already told her it could be dangerous and uncomfortable and she still wants to come."

The guys settled down and we got on with planning the movement of fifty elk from an overpopulated area to an underpopulated one.

When we got to the grocery store parking lot where we were meeting to start the roundup the next morning, a teal Taurus was already sitting in the lot. A long figure in jeans and a fleece pullover unfolded itself from the front seat and walked over.

"Mr. MacNeil? I'm Wendy Erskine."

I took the hand she stuck out. Tall, slender, with dark red hair (is that what they call "auburn"?) and green eyes, she was the type you might pass over on a first glance, but a second one would definitely stick. Classic beauty with no hint of flash. Tall works for me, too; I got dumped in college by a little cutie who explained that she didn't consider herself short at 5'3", but couldn't see spending the rest of her life standing next to a man a whole foot taller. The "Mr. MacNeil" drew a chuckle from Ben.

"Call me Jim, please."

Ben's voice from behind me:

"Or do like the rest of us and call him oof, damn it, Chuck...."

I turned.

"It's too damn early to be starting this crap, guys. How about letting us get some coffee first?"

I turned back.

"Sorry about the language, Ms. Erskine."

She laughed. Reminded me of a carillon ringing.

"Wendy, please. And I'm from New York, remember? I didn't know there were still men who are embarrassed to swear in front of women."

"Well, we try to act a little better out here. Look, let's put your stuff in my truck and you can ride with us. No sense taking more vehicles than we need, and that Taurus isn't built for rough roads."

"Yeah, and the rental agency wants everything but my first born child if I bring it back dinged up. Let me grab my stuff."

"Need a hand?"

"Well, if you don't mind, sure."

Points to her; the last one had just said "please have your people load those cases" and gone off to apply another layer of makeup or something. My guys will pitch in on anything if asked politely, but they didn't appreciate being treated like dude ranch waiters.

Following her across the lot, it struck me that her hiking boots looked well broken in. Good sign. Something else struck me as she reached into the trunk: her well worn jeans fit her trim hips VERY nicely, and she appeared to be wearing the world's smallest string bikini panties under them. Bless me, Gloria Steinem, for I have sinned: I was checking out a pretty woman's panty lines. Pathetic, I know, but attractive women were few and far between out where we worked and lived. She straightened and handed me a well used Kelty Redwing backpack.

"Would you mind holding this while I grab something out of the back seat?"

Why, no, I wouldn't mind watching her bend into the back seat at all. The Redwing was a good sign too: it's a classic piece of gear for serious hikers, and I had one myself. She came up with a couple wide, flat white boxes and walked over to where the guys were pouring coffee out of Thermoses on the tailgate of my truck.

"I passed a Krispy Kreme on the way from the airport, and they had the 'hot and fresh' sign lit. No way I can eat all these by myself. Can you guys help me out?"

This gal was one smart cookie. She knew that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, and these guys would be falling over themselves to help her the rest of the day. The residue of hostility the last reporter chick left was vanishing as fast as the donuts. I didn't even get any attitude when I told the guys that she got the shotgun seat next to me in the Suburban. Once we were out on the road she pulled out a notebook and turned to me.

"Can you explain to me from the beginning what you're doing here today?"

I took a sip of coffee from my oversized travel mug and got started.

"Did you get the AAA map of this area before you came out here, or do you rely on GPS?"

"I don't rely on GPS."

"Smart woman. Every winter we have to rescue some city people whose GPS led them up a closed mountain road. Anyway, when you look at the map you focus on the roads, right?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

"If elk could read maps they would do the opposite and focus on the roadless areas. The unsettled mountain areas are the elk habitat. People settle and build roads along the valley floors, and that breaks up the traditional elk migration routes. Once a farmer plants crops he doesn't want a herd of elk tramping through eating everything in sight, even if they've been using that route for the last thousand years. He's going to fence them out, chase them off with dogs, or sometimes do something even shadier to get rid of them. Same with the Roads & Highways people; they fence off major roads to avoid car-game collisions. If you colored in the elk habitat on your map it would look like a chain of islands."

She pulled a map out of her backpack and unfolded it without jostling me.

"OK, I see what you're saying."

"Now, sometimes the elk population on one island, so to speak, will get bigger than the habitat can sustain. They start eating everything down to the ground, which causes erosion, and wander into populated areas where they get into trouble. Come winter, they die off from lack of food and stored body fat. The solution is to capture a bunch of them and move them to another 'island' that's underpopulated. That's what we're doing today."

"Hey Jim!"

I sighed.

"What, Ben?"

"Did you bring the barrels of Margaritas and suntan lotion for them elk on islands?"

Scattered chuckles.

"Don't laugh, you guys, it just encourages him."

Wendy shook her head, but I could see a faint grin. Cute dimples, too.

"How exactly does it work?"

"We have a long set of fences set up in a V shape near a meadow where they like to graze. We use horses and ATVs to push the elk into the funnel, and before they know it they're in the corral at the point of the V. Once they settle down a little we pull them out one at a time, sedate them, give them a quick checkup, ear tag, and vaccination, and put them in a horse trailer. Once the trailer's full another crew hauls it to the release area, unloads them, and watches them until they're on their feet and walking steady again."

"Why do they watch them?"

"Until they can take care of themselves they're easy prey for coyotes and feral dogs. Cougars too, but a cougar generally won't try for a kill in front of a bunch of humans. Some places have had problems with two-legged lowlifes trying for an easy kill, so we want it known that there's guards with rifles sitting right there."

"You guys would actually shoot someone for poaching?"

Uncomfortable silence. A couple years before a "guide" from the next county had started letting it be known that for the right price- well over $50,000- he would guarantee a world record trophy, without worrying about little details like licenses, tags, seasons, or National Park or Game Refuge boundaries. When he didn't return from one trip, the locals had unanimously claimed they were too busy to help with the search- something totally unheard of. I suspected that one or two of the guys in this very truck knew exactly why he was never found, but we never talked about it- especially not in front of a reporter.

"In these parts the only thing lower than a poacher is a child molester. I have no problem with honest hunting- I couldn't keep this program going without help from hunters and hunting organizations- but no one hates a poacher more than an honest hunter. Anyway, it's never come to that. It's just easier to run them off when it's clear that they aren't going to poach an elk without a fight. They wouldn't poach if they wanted to do things the hard way."

"So how do I fit into this?"

"I thought we'd start by putting you behind the fence near the mouth of the V, where the drive will go right past you and you should get some good action shots. Then you'll be close to the corral and you can move over there to follow the action. From there you can watch us process the elk, and if you want to go with one of the dropoff crews that shouldn't be a problem. Let's see how things develop."

"If you think you're going to just set me in a corner out of the way, you can think again."

"I'm not trying to do that. Sometimes an elk will panic and try to bolt out of the trap, and the riders scramble to cut it off. If you're out in the middle only watching what you can see through a lens one or the other will run you over. I just don't want anyone getting hurt."

"Well, OK, let's see how this works before we start fighting over it."

"Makes sense to me."

When we got there I showed her where I wanted her to stand and went to deal with the real work of the day. Once we had the elk in the corral we broke for lunch while they got a chance to calm down from the chase. I found Wendy sitting on a log with a small laptop in front of her and a one person audience. Lindsay Collins was one of my favorite people in town. A precocious, twelve year old bundle of bones and hormones, she still played with dolls when she wasn't driving our lone teacher crazy trying to keep up with her prodigious intellectual hunger. They were flipping through pictures on the screen and exclaiming over them.

"Isn't Uncle Jim handsome? All the moms think he needs a girlfriend, but he's too busy with those dumb animals."

I couldn't let her answer that one.

"Did you get some good pictures?"

Wendy greeted me with a bright smile.

"Hey, you were right, I did get a great view of the roundup from where you left me. Come have a look."

"Glad it went well. Hi, Lindsay, how are you doing?"

"I'm helping Ms. Erskine, and she's showing me all about photography. I think I want to be a photographer myself when I grow up!"

"That's great, kiddo, but I think your mom's wondering where you got to. Why don't you go show her you're still alive and then come see if Ms. Erskine needs any more help this afternoon?"

The roundups had developed into a family event years ago when the original volunteers started bringing their wives and kids. The younger women tended to jump on their own horses and ATVs and dive in as enthusiastically as the men, while the older generation sat in the shade, gossiped, and kept the little kids out from underfoot.

"Oh, all right. Hey, isn't Ms. Erskine pretty? Why don't you ask her for a date while I'm gone?"

"Lindsay, remember that talk we had last week about asking grownups personal questions? I think I just heard three or four too many. Don't you want to be my girlfriend anymore?"

"Don't be silly, Uncle Jim, you can't be my boyfriend. You're old!"

I ignored Wendy's chuckle.

"I bet Johnny Smith will be glad to hear that."

Lindsay blushed and stuck her tongue out at me.

"He's just a dumb boy. I don't need any boyfriends!"

"You sure don't, young lady, and I hope you remember that. And it's unladylike to stick your tongue out at people. I bet Ms. Erskine doesn't do that."

Wendy promptly stuck her tongue out at me, sending Lindsay into fits of giggles.

"I should have known better than to take on two women at once. Run along and find your momma and give me a fighting chance."

Lindsay scampered off and Wendy turned to me.

"I keep telling her to call me Wendy, and she just ignores it."

"Kids around here aren't allowed to call adults by their first names. You shouldn't put her on the spot by telling her to- she knows she'd get in trouble for it later."

"Now it makes sense. She's a really bright kid."

"Yeah, she is. I think she's read every book I and every other adult around here own. Answering her questions about things I haven't read since college gets to be a real strain."

"I noticed there's some you didn't answer."

Was she flirting? Suggesting that she'd like me to ask her out?

"I'm a Federal employee, remember? At the last sexual harassment seminar I was told that I'm not allowed to notice if a woman's pretty or not while I'm on duty."

She gave me a Mona Lisa smile and retreated to safer ground.

"So Lindsay wants to be a photographer?"

"Last week she wanted to run for Congress. I think she's just impressed with the glamorous, globetrotting New York City reporter."

Wendy rubbed at a streak of dirt on her "New York City Marathon" t-shirt.

"I'm hardly glamorous today."

I rapidly pulled my thoughts back from the track her gesture sent them down- healthy B cup at least, hint of lace, this gal has good taste in lingerie and would feel great against my chest...

"I doubt your sister gave you that haircut in her kitchen, you didn't buy those jeans at Wal-Mart, and you smell of Joy. By our standards you're pretty glamorous."

Her turn to blush a little.

"Thanks, I think. How are you related to Lindsay?"

"Technically I'm not. Her bio father disappeared a couple months before she was born. Said he had a job offer fishing in Alaska, but who knows? Never came back, anyway. Her momma worked her way up to being one of the local forest rangers. Good woman, but she's got her hands full. I met Lindsay when I came to town and started using the basketball hoop behind the ranger station in the evenings. Before I knew it I was coaching the pee wee basketball team. Somehow the ones that don't have a father in their lives kind of stick out, you know? I got in the habit of doing stuff with her once in a while. It's not like there's a lot going on most evenings around here."

"Well, she seems like a great kid."

"She is. Thanks for letting her follow you around."

"My pleasure, believe me."

We smiled at each other and I heard a yell from the fence line.

"Hey, Jim, no romancin' on government time! Let's get 'er done!"

Wendy shook her head, grinning.

"How do you put up with that Ben character?"

There was a startled shout from the corral.

"Watch this."

A cow elk had wiggled loose and made a break for freedom. Ben straightened from his lean on the fence and made what looked like a casual gesture with his right hand. A lariat snaked out and looped itself around the animal's flying front legs, and Ben brought it crashing to the ground unhurt with a pull on the rope. Before the elk knew what had happened its legs were tied together, it had a gunnysack over its head, and it was being gently loaded into a horse trailer. Ben casually looped up his lariat and went back to leaning on the fence.

"Ben makes it look easy, but even out here there's not a cowboy in a thousand that could have done that. I'd put up with more than dumb jokes to have him on my team."

"I thought you roped animals around the neck?"

"Do that to a wild elk and it's either going to fight the rope until it strangles or charge and kick you half to death. Roping the legs is harder, but it's safer for all involved."

"I wish I'd had my camera ready for that."

"If you ask Ben he'd be thrilled to show you what he can do with a rope. He's won national championships. Look, I do need to get back to work. Feel free to watch anything as long as you're not underfoot, and if you leave here please let me know so we aren't searching for you half the night. Otherwise, meet me at my truck about 5:30."

She winked.

"Sounds good. See you later."

I went back to work slightly dazed, but shook it off fast with the amount of work we had to do. Wendy was around with her camera constantly, shooting on the edge of the action but never having to be told to get out of the way. I noticed that I wasn't the only man there who was slightly distracted by those long legs and well filled T-shirt, but any ruffled feathers among the women were quickly smoothed by her unpretentious manner and genuine interest in what we were doing. Before I knew it the shadows of the mountains were getting long and the corral was empty. Wendy met me at my truck as ordered, looking tired but happy.

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